Considering the Past: “Too comfortable a zone and we stop looking towards a ‘better’ future.”

we insist that politics is imagination and mind, we will learn that imagination and mind is politics, and of a kind we will not like…

– Lionel Trilling

John Bruton has published an interesting apologia for John Redmond and his achievements in securing the Home Rule Bill in September 1914.

Considerable brinksmanship was needed, because, if the Liberals lost the election, the cause of Home Rule would also be lost. Redmond and Dillon did not have all the trump cards. They just played the cards they had very well indeed.

If commemorations are about drawing relevant lessons for today’s generation from the work of past generations, this remarkable exercise of parliamentary leverage, to achieve radical reform against entrenched resistance, has much greater relevance, to today’s generation of democrats, than does the blood sacrifice of Pearse and Connolly.

The subsequent turning away, post 1916, from constitutional methods has obscured the scale of this parliamentary achievement. There may have been a fear that too much praise of the prior constitutional achievement would delegitimate the subsequent blood sacrifice.

It’s a fair point, but such an analysis ignores the failure of Redmond’s long parley with Carson to find some form of equitable solution to ‘the Ulster Question’.

Perhaps it’s a mistake to use violence as the significant marker between what was acceptable political action and what wasn’t. In this case, it’s use by Bruton in this regard may betray a preoccupation with an uncomfortably position the muscular entry of Sinn Fein into constitutional Irish politics creates for its erstwhile incumbents.

As this exchange between Redmond and Carson his old friend from the southern court circuit suggests that the home rule bill itself set up a irresolvable fault line within the all island polity:

Men do not make sacrifices or take up the attitude these men in Ulster have taken up on a question of detail or paper safeguards. I am not going to argue whether they are right or wrong in resisting. It would be useless to argue it, because they have thoroughly made up their minds, but I say this: If these men are not morally justified when they are attempted to be driven out of one Government with which they are satisfied, and put under another which they loath, I do not see how resistance ever can be justified in history at all.

Redmond’s constitutionally legitimate plan effectively meant the co-option of a large northern Protestant minority largely against their will. In seeking to serve the greater good of the large majority of the island, The interests of that politically and numerically significant minority were to be unnegotiated or dispensed with [in] any serious sense.

A point drilled home by Carson in the same exchange…

You probably can coerce her—though I doubt it. If you do, what will be the disastrous consequences not only to Ulster, but to this country and the Empire? Will my fellow countryman, the Leader of the Nationalist party, have gained anything? I will agree with him—I do not believe he wants to triumph any more than I do.

But will he have gained anything if he takes over these people and then applies for what he used to call—at all events his party used to call—the enemies of the people to come in and coerce them into obedience?

No, Sir, one false step taken in relation to Ulster will, in my opinion, render for ever impossible a solution of the Irish question, I say this to my Nationalist fellow countrymen, and, indeed, also to the Government: you have never tried to win over Ulster. You have never tried to understand her position. You have never alleged, and can never allege, that this Bill gives her one atom of advantage.

Interestingly the Belfast born Sean MacEntee noted in 1970 (quoted in Stephen Kelly’s Fianna Fail, Partition and Northern Ireland) of his own party’s response to the subsequence passage of partition into permanence (if we can call nigh on 100 years permanent)…

Maybe we were far too rigid in our approach, too tenacious in our point of view, too proud to temporise or placate… whatever may have been the reason, we made no headway: so our successors must start from “square one”.

The first significant move off square one came almost thirty years later, and was a substantive attempt to reset political relationships within the island and between the islands of the larger archipelago in the form of the Belfast Agreement.

But, as the Taoiseach who presided over that agreement acknowledged on his way out of office, Redmond’s model of a single all island administration remained a long ways off …

That can only happen in the long term future. How long that will be I don’t know. If it is done by any means of coercion, or divisiveness, or threats, it will never happen. We’ll stay at a very peaceful Ireland and I think time will be the healer providing people, in a dedicated way, work for the better good of everyone on the island.

If it doesn’t prove possible, then it stays the way it is under the Good Friday Agreement, and people will just have to be tolerant of that if it’s not possible to bring it any further.

Interestingly though, the move away from square one has been accompanied by a queer fight over truth and legitimacy, which is also reflected elsewhere in some of the most desperate of struggles in Israel/Palestine, Syria, Eastern Ukraine, and even the increasing polarisation of debate in the US.

Perhaps, as this column in the Economist suggests, everything old is new again. But as David Amerland argues this does not have to end in military or other forms of destructive conflict…

The past was never halcyon. Although in retrospect we can mythologize it, it too was full of tumult, change, challenge and uncertainty. That, is as it should be. Too comfortable a zone and we stop looking towards a ‘better’ future. We stop evolving.

In harking back to the mores of the past we seek to capture not its substance (because it too had ignorance, sectarianism and intransigence) but its essence.

A sense that together we are stronger than alone. That differences should not be the defining factor for our enmities. That survival and value and evolution, work best in a setting where we align our purpose, with that of others.

That all depends of course, on your political intentions, or what imaginative nostrums you have in mind to foist upon (or co-create with) your neighbours?

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